Wednesday, April 17, 2019

American Oak, The British Navy And Scotch

To be aged in bourbon barrels is the ‘hot’ thing in libation. From tequila to Worcestershire sauce, the finishing qualities of used bourbon barrels permeate a plethora of consumables.

But why and how did this ‘fad’ take off?

First, aging in used barrels is not new. Indeed, the practice of re-using casks goes back millennia.

Contemporary usage owes to these basic influences:

The British Navy

The Frugal Scotts


The British Navy

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom ruled the seas with the largest navy ever assembled. It took 3,400 oak trees to build one 74 gun ship-of-the-line consuming massive quantities of oak forests thus leaving little if any, wood for coopers.

On the other side of the channel, the French-built many ships, but implemented a conservation program of their oak forests - France is geographically three times as large as the UK. This meant France had local resources to make barrels needed to ferment wines.

Meanwhile, the cheeseparing Scotts were busy making whiskey aged in port and sherry casks but early in the nineteenth century, port and sherry exports increased, sending casks abroad, never to be seen again: The source of cheap barrels was strained.

So manufacturing new barrels were difficult because of reduced resources and it was cheaper to recycle used casks.


The usage of aged casks enhanced the taste of wines and spirits by adding sweetness or covering imperfections. Over time, the universal palate grew to expect a sweet and more complex nuance brought on by previously used barrels.

Enter the Americans

Whiskey made in Kentucky was packaged in large oak casks to be shipped down the Mississippi River (see our piece on Jefferson Ocean) or to the East Coast. Whiskey aged on the trip and was bottled at the port, leaving a plethora of vacant, oak barrels.

It Was Cost

The Scots needed cheap barrels, the Americans had plenty of white oak forests, shipping empty casks back to the distillery was cost-prohibitive, selling used barrels is an additional revenue stream and people look forward to the enhanced taste of oak-aged drams.

Simple formula.

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